(Photo Credit: David Tucker/News Journal)
When he proposed a hiatus on collecting gas taxes last month during a stop at the Daytona Beach Buc-ee's, Gov. Ron DeSantis brushed off any concern that Florida's infrastructure needs won't be met because of a lack of funding.
At that same news conference, The News-Journal asked state Sen. Tom Wright about the very Interstate 95 interchange where Buc-ee's — Florida's largest gas station and convenience store — is located. LPGA and the half-century-old bridge over the Tomoka River just west of I-95 will be widened to four lanes, Wright insisted.
"It's in the (Florida Department of Transportation) five-year plan. It's funded and it's set to go. The money's there," Wright said.
That suggests improvements to LPGA Boulevard — a roadway being crushed by surrounding housing and commercial development west of I-95 — are right around the corner.
But that's not quite the case.
Jessica Ottoviano, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation's District 5 office, told The News-Journal that the I-95/LPGA project has received more than $3 million to conduct a project development and environmental study, which is now underway. Another $7 million has been budgeted for design, which is expected to commence in 2022.
"The project may require right-of-way, and the amount and cost will be better determined as the PD&E study and design move forward," Ottoviano wrote in an email. "This is the same case for construction cost estimates."
All that likely means actual improvements to LPGA are still years away.
Growth Explodes, Creating Transportation Glut
In 2014, Kim Harty moved from California to Port Orange and started work at a Holly Hill company, commuting daily on I-95 and LPGA Boulevard.
She's witnessed the traffic get more and more congested, year after year. What used to be a breeze is a snarl, especially at two spots: Exiting off 95 onto LPGA eastbound and approaching Clyde Morris Boulevard, where the line of vehicles turning north is backed up beyond the left-turn lane and into the left lane of traffic.
"At 7:45 (a.m.) it's a mess," Harty said. "There's so much traffic and everyone seems to be coming from the (west) side of 95, with all of the new houses over there. ... It's ... ugh."
A mind-boggling amount of development — commercial and residential — has taken place near the LPGA/I-95 interchange. Just in time for the holiday shopping season five years ago, Tanger Outlets opened, adding more than 75 retailers to the mix. That was followed by the adjacent Tomoka Town Center and, more recently, by Buc-ee's.
Also during that time, Latitude Margaritaville, a 55-and-older community, arose along LPGA Boulevard on the west side of I-95. Before it's done, Margaritaville will have 3,900 homes. A Publix and other retail have been built at LPGA Boulevard and the entrance to Margaritaville.
Add to that hundreds more new homes in the Mosaic and LPGA communities, as well as hundreds of new apartments along LPGA and Williamson boulevards east of I-95, and the corridor suddenly needs roadway capacity.
"None of that (development along LPGA Boulevard) was there when I started commuting to Holly Hill," Harty said.
Although LPGA Boulevard is four lanes east of I-95, it remains just two lanes west of the interstate. The LPGA bridge over the Tomoka River on the west side of I-95 is one of 12 segments of state and county roads deemed "critical" on a 2020 Volusia County traffic engineering map.
The FDOT's project includes a 7.4-mile stretch of LPGA Boulevard, from Williamson Boulevard all the way to U.S. 92. But construction of a new four-lane bridge over the Tomoka River remains a major impediment.
The developer of a 10,000-home community, Avalon Park Daytona Beach — scheduled to start building next year — has promised to finance the widening of that bridge, but it is unclear how soon that can be accomplished. Three years ago, it was estimated to cost around $35 million.
Although the FDOT website does not indicate any money has been set aside to buy right-of-way for the larger interchange and LPGA corridor project, Ottoviano said $7 million has been programmed for it "should it be needed."
Because the project hasn't yet been designed, it's unclear how much it will cost. But Ottoviano made one thing clear: "Construction is unfunded at this time."
Big John, the former Volusia County Councilman-turned-radio host, follows transportation issues perhaps as closely as any non-official in the county, and he said Wright, among others, are "flat-out wrong" suggesting LPGA is "funded" and "set to go."
If there's one example above all others of poor growth management planning locally, it's the I-95/LPGA interchange, John said. And with no money programmed for construction before 2027, he has reached a conclusion.
"We're nowhere," he said. "And all of those poor slobs who've built out there in Margaritaville, they don't even know it."
Stacy Cantu, the Daytona Beach city commissioner who sits on Volusia County's Transportation Planning Organization board, said she's happy to see the PD&E study has begun, as LPGA is "one of our main priorities."
She isn't counting on the LPGA project to be completed sooner than 2027.
"We're looking at least five years or more," she said. "There's still not enough money. I'm hoping that (federal) infrastructure bill will help, as will tax revenue from (the newly approved Amazon fulfillment center)."
Maryam Ghyabi-White, an Ormond Beach transportation engineer who owns a consulting and management business, said there are no short-term answers for LPGA, and she admits she is frustrated.
"I have moments, really angry moments where I say, 'This shouldn't be that way. How can we approve all of these projects knowing we didn't have the capacity? Who does that?' But, again, I advise myself not to look back."
Ghyabi-White said she is making state officials aware of the problem and the need for LPGA corridor improvements to be moved up on the priority list, while searching for other possible solutions.
"The good news is the cities of Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach and Volusia County's managers are collaborative," Ghyabi-White said.
New Pioneer Trail Interchange Starts In 2023
Meanwhile, 13 miles south of LPGA Boulevard, I-95 passes beneath a two-lane bridge in what looks to be a rural area bordering Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach.
Hints of development are visible to the east of I-95, as the Coastal Woods subdivision in New Smyrna Beach creeps closer. Some 3,000 homes are well on the way to being built in Venetian Bay a couple of miles west of I-95, while to the northwest, the extended Williamson Boulevard snakes through what will become Woodhaven, a community of 1,300 homes and 400 apartments/townhomes.
The two nearest I-95 interchanges, at Dunlawton Avenue in Port Orange and State Road 44 in New Smyrna Beach, are also seeing increasing traffic congestion.
Scott Stiltner, a member of the Port Orange City Council who also sits on the TPO board, said the problems at Dunlawton and State Road 44 are not much different from LPGA.
"One of the things we don't have enough of in east Volusia are east-west collector roads," Stiltner said. "From Ormond (Beach) to New Smyrna Beach, most of the traffic problems are in that east-west direction.
"That Pioneer interchange will help relieve a lot of traffic off 44 and State Road 421, which is Dunlawton," he said. "I completely understand it's the growing pains of growth."
The Pioneer Trail interchange has been talked about since at least 2002, if not earlier.
"Converting this overpass to a full interchange will help meet future traffic demand in the area as well as reduce traffic congestion at the two adjacent interchanges," Ottoviano wrote.
Design, costing $6 million, is under way, while construction for Pioneer Trail is estimated at $48 million and has been programmed to begin in 2023, Ottoviano said.
"With any FDOT project, current and future needs are considered as plans are developed. Other projects on the I-95 corridor have also been in the works to bring the corridor up to date and help to better meet the needs of the area. Recent funding advancements will help deliver some of these projects sooner," she said.
Will Federal Transportation Bill Speed Up Construction?
Beth Frady, communications director for FDOT in Tallahassee, said that in developing the department's five-year work program, it assumed continued federal transportation funding would continue at the same level.
But the $1 trillion federal transportation reauthorization bill — known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA — that was signed by President Joe Biden last month will deliver the states a large injection of new cash for infrastructure. It is slated to provide $110 billion for the nation's roads, bridges and major projects. While a state-by-state breakdown of those funds is not yet available, if the administration doles that money out on a per-capita basis, Florida would be in line for more than $7 billion.
That prospect excites Ghyabi-White and others looking to move LPGA up on the priority list. State officials acknowledge that's a possibility.
"FDOT will be reevaluating and modifying the work program once the Federal Highway Administration issues guidance on many of the programs within the IIJA to ensure Florida remains compliant," Frady explained in an email. "Also of note, many of the new programs in the IIJA are discretionary and states/entities must compete for them, which of course means those new programs are not in the current work program."
Colleen Nicoulin, interim executive director of the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization, said while the LPGA project remains behind Pioneer Trail in the state's work program funding, the LPGA project did get a boost forward.
"Design for that project was recently advanced to happen concurrently with the PD&E, which moves that project forward faster," Nicoulin said.
The TPO has been working with the county, city and state to "strategically position ourselves to be ready if that funding does become available," she said.
Of course, Nicoulin said, even if funding is available, other phases of the project — traffic and environmental studies and design — have to be completed before construction can ensue.